Models lie

Model designers want to do good work, but each is constrained by his medium. In a book, a model can’t convey the scale of what it needs to show. The page is only so big, and our eyes can only see so small.

Space is big and there isn’t much matter. Model designers are stuck on the horns of a dilemma. So, they compromise. They favor stuff over not stuff.

They throw away fidelity to distance, and maybe to size too. To show anything of the surface of the planets, they squish space down criminally. A child looking at most models might reasonably infer that the distance to visit an aunt on another continent is about a quarter the distance as it is to Mars.

Worse, because the planets vary so much in size, there’s a kind of averaging and smoothing, that might show Earth the same size as Mars, and both are about half the size as Jupiter, which is about the size of the Sun. That is all wrong.

The next common problem is that often we see diagrams of the planets in a straight line. That never happens. It gives a false impression of staged linearity. Lots of models in the sciences have this problem, but that doesn’t make it okay.

Even the distance to our moon is distorted in our minds. We have sent people to stand on the moon and few people understand how momentous that is. It’s as though everyone on earth thinks the tallest trees are a half an inch tall. What’s inspiring about climbing them? Knowledge of reality will inspire us in more than one way.

We can do better. Let’s make a great model.